Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Religion Makes Smart People Stupid

The physicist Stephen Weinberg once famously remarked, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil---that takes religion."

But religion's effects are not limited to making good people do evil; it can also make smart people act stupid.

David Gelernter is an example. He teaches computer science at Yale, and apparently once made some important contributions to parallel programming. Lately, however, he seems to spend most of his time writing essays and books; he's a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

But he's also obsessed with religion. In 1997, he falsely claimed, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, that "the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools" and refused to issue a correction. (Rather, in Engel v. Vitale, the Court ruled 8-1 that government-sponsored prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Nothing the court said prevents students from praying silently on their own, or reading the Bible during study breaks.) In his anti-AI book The Muse in the Machine, he spends 25 pages on Old Testament commentary. Gelernter once recommended that atheist students, unconstitutionally forced to recite "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, should simply "keep quiet".

And his obsession with religion makes him say some extremely stupid things. Here's an example: the Templeton Foundation, that den of insipid God-talk, recently asked 12 people, "Does the Universe have a purpose?" Here is Gelernter's response:

Consider this question: Do the Earth and mankind have a purpose? If so, then the universe does too, ipso facto.

Here Gelernter commits one of the classic logical fallacies: the fallacy of composition. In the fallacy of composition, one takes a property of a part of a system and extrapolates that property to the system as a whole. For example, "This cup is made of molecules. Molecules are too light to weigh on a kitchen scale. Therefore, this cup is too light to weigh on a kitchen scale."

As if sensing the silliness of his claim, Gelernter justifies his reasoning with ipso facto. He should have said, caveat emptor.

Could the Universe fail to have a purpose, even if the Earth and mankind do? Of course. Consider a pile of trash that has been assembled by the wind. Inside the pile is a torn page from Gelernter's Ph. D. thesis. Does the page have a purpose? Surely. Does the pile of trash itself have a purpose? No. Gelernter, by the fallacy of composition, would have to insist that the pile does, indeed, have a purpose.

Religion makes smart people stupid.

Gelernter goes on to extol the paradise that Judaism and Christianity have wrought: Humans desire goodness; but until the Judeo-Christian revelation this desire was, at least for Western humanity, vague and unformed.

This claim is incoherent at its root because there wasn't even a notion of "Western humanity" until 400 CE, well after the "Judeo-Christian revelation". What we think of as Western civilization is grounded just as much in Hellenistic philosophy and the Enlightenment as it is in Judaism and Christianity.

Religion makes smart people stupid.

Next, Gelernter goes on to display his deep understanding of biology: When we seek goodness and sanctity, we defy nature. The basic rule of Judeo-Christian ethics is, the strong must support the weak. The basic rule of nature is, the strong live and the weak die.

No, that's not the basic rule of nature. Strength, per se, may not gain you an evolutionary advantage; there are many more earthworms than there are bears. And nature is filled with examples of cooperation, which somehow magically arises without the need for "Judeo-Christian ethics". Gelernter should read some of the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, whose work conclusively shows that the virtues of sympathy, empathy, and cooperation exist in the animal world. Gelernter's "basic rule of nature" is a product of his own imagining, not the way the world works.

Religion makes smart people stupid.

But all of Gelernter's factual errors shouldn't distract from the essential inanity of his vision of the Universe: that our goal should be "goodness". I am reminded of a famous cartoon of Charles Schulz: Linus claims that "We are here to help others"; and Lucy responds "What are the others here for?"

A cosmic Purpose that we are here to be good, and nothing more, fails to capture some really essential things about our humanity: our desire to know and learn, to achieve more than others, to go where others haven't. If "goodness" is our sole Purpose, count me out. And even if "goodness" is our sole Purpose, religion has been remarkably unable to achieve it. Whether it is the 19 Muslim hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or Yigal Amir, who justified his assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on religious grounds, or Eric Rudolph, who bombed and killed people because of his Christian faith, religion is more often the problem than the solution.

Religion makes smart people - like David Gelernter - stupid.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Creationists

I've noticed that many creationists seem to be susceptible to logical fallacies. Let's look at two examples:

The fallacy of division is to attribute to individual parts something that is characteristic of a whole. For example, water is wet, so individual atoms of water must be wet, too.

A particularly nice example of this fallacy was recently posted by someone named "Gizmo" commenting on a ridiculous article by British columnist Christopher Booker:

A good illustration of the existence of God is provided by all these wonderful arguments & counter-arguments!

If only people could see that cells & DNA cannot hold an idea or opinion, and cannot have a debate.

We are far more than just flesh & blood!

Gizmo's "reasoning" seems to be

1. People hold ideas and opinions.

2. Suppose that people consist solely of "cells & DNA".

3. Then "cells & DNA" hold ideas and opinions (by the fallacy of division).

4. But "cells & DNA" cannot hold ideas or opinions.

5. Therefore there must exist something in people besides "cells & DNA".

Another logical fallacy popular among creationists is the continuum fallacy. In this fallacy, the writer tries to get a contradiction by positing the absurdity of obtaining a property incrementally. It is sometimes called the fallacy of the heap, because it is illustrated by the following: one grain of sand doesn't form a heap. If a pile of sand is not a heap, then adding a single grain can't make it a heap. Therefore two grains of sand don't form heap, and neither do three, four, etc.

Here is a nice example from the writing of ID's intellectual leader, William Dembski:

Out pop purpose, intelligence, and design from a process that started with no purpose, intelligence, or design. This is magic.

What Dembski fails to grasp is that "purpose", "intelligence", and "design" are not necessarily black-and-white properties. People can be said to be intelligent, but why not chimps? Why not their common ancestor? Why not the ancestor of that creature? Etc. Intelligence is a continuum, and there is no reason to believe it cannot arise slowly through evolution.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Britain Imposes Ridiculous Controls on Visiting Artists and Academics

From the Manifesto Club comes this petition to repeal the UK's recent imposition of ridiculous controls on artists and academics visiting Britain.

Monday, February 16, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

1. When I was about ten years old, I shook the hand of Hubert Humphrey at a political rally in Philadelphia. Immediately afterwards, the crowd pushed me against the platform and I was almost crushed to death.

2. I have some metal screws in my left knee, which were put in after I tore my anterior cruciate ligament playing ultimate frisbee.

3. I have one extremely odd talent: I can usually tell, just by looking at the fonts contained in a single page of a published mathematics paper, what journal the paper appeared in, and I can often estimate the year the paper appeared.

4. I almost died at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Oakland, California in the early 1980's from an asthma attack brought on by people smoking cigarettes.

5. My favorite number is 43.

6. One of my favorite songwriters is someone few people have ever heard of: Michael Peter Smith. He wrote The Dutchman, among other songs. (He is not to be confused with the insipid Christian songwriter Michael W. Smith.)

7. I really dislike jazz, mostly because I don't understand it. Nearly all jazz just sounds like random noise to me.

8. At my first talk at a mathematics conference, Paul Erdős was in the audience. He promptly fell asleep, and I felt very disappointed. Later, I was delighted to receive a request from him for a reprint.

9. I was almost shot in Chicago when I was about seven years old. My father had taken me on a business trip, and we were walking down Michigan Avenue when a man ran past me and knocked me down. When I got up, I turned around and looked into the barrel of a gun, held by a policeman who was chasing a bank robber -- the man who had knocked me down. My father pushed me up against the wall of the building and covered me with his body so I wouldn't get shot. The policeman ran past and captured the bank robber without a shot. We walked past as the robber was sprawled on the sidewalk with a bag of money spread out beside him.

10. The longest race I ever ran was the "20 km de Paris", which I ran in 1982. I finished in about two hours.

11. I broke the middle finger of my right hand playing 16-inch softball -- which is played without a mitt - in Chicago, Illinois in 1984 or so. When I caught the ball that broke my finger, I didn't feel any pain, although I did notice that my finger was bent at a funny angle. It wasn't until I tried to move it back to its normal position that it began to hurt. When I went to the emergency room, the doctor took one look at my finger and said, "Been playing 16-inch softball?" The world's expert on the mallet-finger injury lives in Chicago, where he operates daily on people with this injury. When I had my surgery, I asked the doctor if I would be able to play piano afterwards. He said, "Can you play the piano now?". I guess he had heard the joke before. I had to teach for several weeks with my middle finger in a cast, which delighted my students no end.

12. I speak with a strong Philadelphia accent. I was once walking down the street in Chicago and a car approached me, slowed down, and the driver rolled down the window and asked for directions. I said no more than about ten words, something along the lines of "You go down to the next corner, turn right, and look for the sign" -- at which point the driver said to me, "Oh, you're from Philadelphia!" I said, "Yes, how did you know?" He said, "Well, I'm a linguist."

13. One of my best friends from high school was killed in a fall while studying ayurvedic medicine in India. He would have been a great doctor. I still miss him.

14. My favorite dessert is banana cream pie.

15. I once spent the night in Penn Station in New York City, waiting for the first train from New York back to Philadelphia. There were many strange people there. One man looked at me and went "mmmmm". Then he said it again, a little louder. When I turned to look at him, he shouted "MMMMM!" at me at the top of his lungs.

16. My middle name is "Outlaw".

17. My favorite living mathematician is H. W. Lenstra, Jr. .

18. My last name means "governor" in Hebrew, but I'm not Jewish.

19. My favorite programming language is APL, and I still use it frequently.

20. I think being a university professor is one of the best jobs in the world. But not everyone would enjoy it.

21. I have taken some very long bike rides, including Paris to Bordeaux and Vienna to Warsaw.

22. Two of my favorite movies are The Great Escape and Local Hero.

23. My grandfather, a Russian immigrant, sold "notions" out of a basket on the streets of Philadelphia. He knew very few words of English, and whenever anyone asked him if he had something particular for sale (needle, thread, etc.), he would say "Look in basket!" Once a woman ran up to him and asked frantically, "Have you seen my child?" He replied, "Look in basket!"

24. My favorite animal is the moose.

25. My favorite French singers are Renaud and Georges Brassens.

Thursday, February 12, 2009 Celebrates Darwin, Not So Much

My kids pointed out to me that this morning has this logo in honor of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, but doesn't. Strange.

Addendum: UK Google and French Google both have the Darwin logo.

Ten Reasons Why Darwin's Birthday is Better than Christmas

Charles Darwin's 200th birthday is today, and 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, The Origin of Species. In honor of this event, I've put together the following list of reasons why Darwin's birthday is better than Christmas:

10. There's no pressure to buy anyone a gift on Darwin's birthday.

9. Nobody puts a tacky copy of The Mount in Shrewsbury on their front lawn on Darwin's birthday.

8. Understanding evolution doesn't make you feel morally superior to everyone else.

7. Nobody sings "The Little Drummer Boy" on Darwin's birthday.

6. Darwin wasn't conceived by deity rape.

5. Nobody thinks Darwin was right about everything.

4. Supermarkets stay open on Darwin's birthday.

3. You can actually learn something by reading Darwin's writings.

2. The Pope stays quiet on Darwin's birthday.

And the number one reason why Darwin's birthday is better than Christmas:

1. Charles Darwin actually existed and was born on February 12, 1809.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Calgary Bishop is Very Confused

It seems that Calgary bishop Fred Henry is rather confused about the point of the atheist bus ad campaign.

Henry is quoted as saying, "I don't know what the norms Calgary Transit uses to accept advertising, but if the benchmark is that it should be non-offensive, I'm offended."

Well, tough luck. If some narrow-minded religionist can't stand to hear that other people believe differently, that's no reason to censor the ads. The goal of the ads is not to offend believers, but to tell non-believers that they're not alone. But for some overly-sensitive theists, even the idea that someone believes differently is something they can't handle.

Then again, this kind of behavior is typical for Henry, who in the past has claimed that homosexuality "undermine[s] the foundations of the family, the basis of society"; yet has hired Catholic priests who are convicted sex offenders.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dishonoring Darwin

When it comes to inane and credulous reporting about religion, my local newspaper, the Waterloo Region Record, is unsurpassed. Reporter Mirko Petricevic has never met a religion he doesn't like. His "reporting" consists mostly of taking dictation from believers, without ever challenging them.

This Saturday the Record published a full-page article about the Canadian chapter of "Creation Ministries International", formerly known as Answers in Genesis. Petricevic gives these anti-science crackpots a full page of free publicity, while not asking them a single hard question.

Reading the article, you wouldn't really understand how overwhelming the weight of evidence against the creationist case is. Petricevic gives the scientific point of view short shrift, mentioning only that "Scientists generally believe the world we know formed about 4.5 billion years ago" and "Many scientists accept that dinosaurs lived about 60 million to 225 million years ago and that humans emerged in Africa between 120,000 and 200,000 years ago". Many scientists? How about saying forthrightly that the scientific consensus is supported by the vast, overwhelming majority of paleontologists and anthropologists?

Defenders of science get only four column inches out of 36, and the defense is rather tepid. As if underlining the reporter's bias, the article closes with two pointers to creationist web sites, but not a single pointer to any website countering creationist claims.

With the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth coming up, I'm fully prepared to see additional shoddy journalism from the Record.

Addendum: Compare Petricevic's article with this article in the Toronto Star. Neither article is very good, but at least the Star article talks about what scientists actually believe, as opposed to what creationists believe.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Day the Music Died

Fifty years ago today, rock pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson), on their way to a concert in Moorhead, Minnesota, were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

I was only one and a half at the time. In 1971, however, Don McLean recorded the engimatic "American Pie", one of the longest songs ever to become a radio hit, and I spent a lot of time trying to decipher the lyrics. It was a real challenge for a teenager with little knowledge of rock music and no Internet to look things up. Eventually I figured out that the song was referring to the death of Buddy Holly:

I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died...

I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn't play...

"American Pie" also had references to many other figures from rock music, including The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, and John Lennon. This 1993 column from The Straight Dope discusses some of them. "American Pie" led me to learn to play many Don McLean songs on the guitar, including "Castles in the Air", "Vincent", and "Empty Chairs".

In 1978, the amazing Gary Busey starred in "The Buddy Holly Story", a superb re-telling of Buddy Holly's life and music. It ranks as one of my all-time favorite movies.

On the way back from our sabbatical in Tucson in 2002, we stopped in the Buddy Holly museum in Lubbock, Texas -- a must-see destination for any fan of early rock. It contains Buddy Holly's guitars, his school report cards, and has a giant pair of his famous glasses out in front.

Tonight I'm going to put on some Buddy Holly and Don McLean and remember these great musicians, and how they changed my life.